Covering a hero's tail

From, Thursday, April 18, 2002

Covering a hero's tail
Billy Bishop expert DAVID BASHOW returns
fire at the aviation legend's critics

In light of recent comments by Canadian historian Brereton Greenhous regarding his forthcoming book, The Making of Billy Bishop, I feel honour-bound, as a fellow historian and a fighter pilot, to offer my observations.

Mr. Greenhous contends that the June 2, 1917, solo dawn raid on a German airfield, for which Bishop was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross, simply did not occur. Mr. Greenhous notes that he could not subsequently identify the airfield, nor was there any mention of the event in German records.

After years of extensive research into Bishop's story, I found two highly reputable and independent sources confirming that there was a flight from a transiting Jagdstaffel, or fighter squadron, at Esnes, France, that day. They were the third and final flight of Jagdstaffel 20, a rather lacklustre unit that was relocating from the French front to the Flanders front.

This corresponds with the location where Bishop said the event occurred in his official combat report. The raid probably did not appear in German records because the squadron was still en route to its new location, and by German rules, was not required to report. It would, in fact, have been unusual to keep records, according to their customs under these circumstances, except in the squadron's war diary, and this was lost to Allied bombing during the Second World War.

Also worthy of note is that Bishop repeatedly asked, until just a few hours before takeoff, for accompaniment on the raid. Those about to commit fraud do not normally invite witnesses to the event. Additionally, copious amounts of circumstantial evidence, such as POW reports and the testimonials of Allied airmen, support confirmation of the raid. There is no empirical evidence to refute it.

Another possible reason for a lack of official reporting around the event revolves around the inadvertently perpetuated myth (long after Bishop's passing) that the raid took place at Estourmel, a permanent German fighter base approximately four miles north of Esnes. Jagdstaffel 5 of Estourmel was, at the time, commanded by Leutnant Werner Voss, the second-highest scoring German ace of the period and a true public-relations asset. His unit was responsible for the air defence of this sector of the front. This audacious attack could have cast the young Voss in an unfavourable light, and the German public-relations apparatus would not have provided the press with information detrimental to their hero's image.

Mr. Greenhous also apparently makes reference to a written German denial of the raid a year after the fact. Gee, let me see . . . that would have been in the early summer of 1918, and if memory serves, we were still at war with Germany then, although things were not exactly going the Germans' way. They certainly would have had no motivation to further the prestige of an Empire hero.

As for the claim that Bishop landed and shot up his own aircraft in order to embellish his story, this is a claim that defies logic. At this time, Nieuport 17s, such as Bishop was flying, were falling out of the sky with alarming regularity due to unresolved structural failures of the wings. The idea of a pilot self-inflicting damage on an aircraft with known structural deficiencies is patently ludicrous.

Also, in order to accomplish this dubious task, Bishop would have had to shut down the engine. Fair enough, but since the aircraft also did not have a self-starting capability, at least one person would have been pressed into service to swing the propeller for him, thereby inviting at least one witness to what would have been exceptionally bizarre behaviour.

"I say, Pierre, would you mind coming over here and pulling my prop through after I have shot up my aircraft?" I don't think so. Further, the battle damage found on the aircraft after the raid is in a location completely consistent with the anti-aircraft fire Bishop claims he encountered recrossing the lines at 5,000 feet.

The Victoria Cross, for which Bishop had been secretly recommended many weeks earlier for sustained valour, and had been denied, was again proposed. After nine weeks of thorough review, during which time those at the War Office deliberating the award went back to Bishop's squadron requesting further details, the VC was duly gazetted on Aug. 11, 1917.

Now, with respect to Mr. Greenhous's claim that only 27 of Bishop's 72 victory claims withstand close scrutiny, one has to appreciate the claims-verification system of the day. This was the first air war, and verification procedures were still evolving. Undoubtedly, those in authority did not envision individual combat records being subject to endless parsing and quibbling by armchair generals for eternity thereafter. There were, obviously, more pressing tasks at hand.

All combatant nations verified claims to different standards, and those of the British Empire were admittedly among the most liberal: A victory in the air resulted from denying an enemy aircraft the ability to do its assigned mission. Thus, to "drive down" or "drive down out of control" an enemy aircraft was for a long time considered as categorical a victory as "destroying" an enemy. Many of Bishop's claims fall in the third category, and given the rules of the day, they enjoy a high degree of verification. In fact, 38 of his officially accredited 72 victories can either be paired with specific German crew names, or were verified by witnesses. Specific names were assigned in 22 cases. By comparison, the great Englishman Albert Ball had 12 names paired to 44 confirmed victories, "Mick" Mannock, 21 of 61, Ira Jones (a famous Bishop detractor), two of 37, and so on . . .

Bishop was certainly not the greatest combat leader in the world -- he was probably too self-absorbed for that -- but he was a skilled, resourceful warrior, possessed of uncommon valour, who served with great distinction and provided tremendous inspiration during very trying times. Canadians should be grateful for his perseverance and daring, and accord him the respect he so richly deserves.

Lieutenant-Colonel David L. Bashow, a fighter pilot, is author of Knights of the Air, and an assistant professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada.

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